Sunday, August 11, 2013

Is Morality Objective?

gavelMartin Luther King Jr. said, “The first principle of value that we need to rediscover is this: that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws.(1)” He helped build the Civil Rights movement upon these moral laws: whites are not superior to blacks and discrimination based upon skin color is wrong. Dr. King believed that morality was objective: it was wrong to oppress non-whites regardless of both the government’s position on the issue and the opinion of millions of Americans. 

Now, most of us agree with Dr. King about the equal treatment of human beings. That goes without saying. But committing to the idea of objective morality? That's another story. I'd like to argue that we all believe morality is objective, even if we don't think we do. To say that morality is objective is to say that there are some moral facts about the world. Facts, by definition, are true regardless of whether or not people agree with them. An action can be wrong even if those who perform that action believe it to be right. Let’s start with this question: Are there any facts, at all? Certainly!

  • 2+2=4
  • 1+1=2
  • 7 is greater in quantity than 4

  • In a right triangle, the square of the 1st leg plus the square of the 2nd leg is equal to the square of the hypotenuse: a^2 + b^2 = c^2\!\,
  • A square has 4 equal sides and 4 right angles.

  • X cannot be non-X at the same time and in the same sense (Law of Non-Contradiction).
  • A ball cannot be both green all over and red all over.
  • A bachelor is unmarried.

It’s clear that there are facts. Facts are objectively true, by definition. Their truth does not depend on our agreement with them. People disagree with facts all the time. I live in NYC. We have no shortage of crazy people on the subway claiming that the human race is being subtly infiltrated by aliens, or that the moon is actually a giant WMD put in place by the Russian government. Do their wacky theories nullify the fact that the moon is a real, cosmic entity? Of course not. Facts are facts. They are judgment-independent. Now, the next question to ask is whether or not there are moral facts. It seems that the answer is, yes. 

There are some moral facts that hold true regardless of whether or not we agree with them. Let’s take this, for example:

Philosopher Michael Ruse says, “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says, 2+2=5."(2)

Is it wrong to rape children? If the answer is ‘Yes’, then morality is objective because 'wrongness' can only be determined when measured against some independent standard. Saying that child rape is a moral act is not the same as saying that vanilla is a tasty flavor of ice cream. Choosing vanilla over rocky-road is a matter of preference whereas the issue of child rape is a matter of 'rightness' and 'wrongness.' But in order for there to be 'rightness' and 'wrongness,' there needs to be an objective standard. This means that the child rapist is wrong, even though he may sincerely believe that he is right. Because morality is objective, we are justified in saying that the child rapist is wrong. If morality is not objective, then there is no basis for labeling actions as wrong (or right). At most, even the worst behaviors could only be considered socially disadvantageous or acting out of fashion.

What evidence is there for objective morality?

I believe that the best evidence for objective morality comes from our moral experience. We know that raping children is wrong. It’s not just socially inconvenient or out of fashion, it is really wrong. How do we know? In the same way we know all metaphysical truths: We just know.

1. We know that the external world is real.
We are not in a matrix, we are not all in a dream, and we are not brains in a vat being stimulated by a crazy scientist creating the illusion of our external world.

2. We know that the past is real.
The world was not created 2 minutes ago and given the appearance of billions of years of age. I was not created 30 seconds ago and implanted with 21 years’ worth of memories.

These truths are unlearned and self-evident. We cannot test them. They simply exist. And the same goes with moral facts. There is no scientific evidence for the truth of the statement “Raping children is wrong,” but it is true, nonetheless. We are justified in trusting our moral experience in the absence of contrary evidence. Why should we distrust our moral intuition if there is no evidence to the contrary? And if we choose to distrust our intuition with regard to morality, then what makes us think that our intuition about these other metaphysical truths is correct?

Maybe we are living in the matrix. Who knows?

1. Martin Luther King Jr. in Peter Holloran, A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 2000), p. 10.
2. Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended (London: Addison-Wesley, 1982), p. 275.

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